Japan: Shooting around on Shinkansen

A mistake I made before travelling to Japan was to watch Lost in Translation and fall prey to Sofia Coppola’s soft-focus illusion. After two weeks of shooting around the country by Shinkansen – the fleet of high-speed, bottle-nosed beauties – it became clear that the film was little more than a stereotypical, insular portrait of a magnetic, complex and multi-layered nation.

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Kanazawa railway station

Almost everything in Japan is designed for efficiency: packets of chopsticks come with a toothpick; a sachet of mustard with ketchup squeezes out two separate lines on a hotdog; the backs of toilet doors have harnesses for mothers to set down their babies. And trains are designed to take passengers from one destination to another as fast and as safely as possible. Nothing more. The average delay is 36 seconds and a series of earthquake counter measures triggers automatic braking that can stop a train at 187mph within 300 metres – while our own trains are cancelled as a result of leaves on the track.

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Nagasaki station

But where the spirit and soul of other Asian countries heaves out of train doorways – from clanging tea vats and steaming dumplings, to raucous card games and rocking babies – Japan’s trains are devoid. They slide up the platform with stealth, their bodies gleaming. On a blue square outside the doors, marked by a pair of painted white feet, a line of passengers makes a queue at a right angle. They slip in, take their seats, put in earphones, swipe their phones or shut their eyes. No one speaks. Sometimes they bring out ekiben – bento boxes containing regional specialities sold at stations. These beautiful wooden boxes are fitted with rice, breaded pork fillets or chicken teriyaki, black shreds of nori, or ginger, pickled pink. Ekiben look more like antique lacquered pieces for a mantelpiece, but they’re fast being replaced by the warm waft of KFC on board.

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An orderly queue forms before boarding

During my first ride on the Sakura Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima I stood a ten-pence piece on its side, and (just to check), stood on one leg in the aisle – neither of us fell over. Nothing but a low whistle of wind filled the cabin and when a fellow bullet train shot the other way we tilted for no more than a few seconds. All heads were bowed, some dozing, some reading, when the conductor entered the carriage, removed his hat and bowed deeply before working his way up the aisle checking tickets. After he reached the top of the carriage he turned around and bowed again before leaving. No one looked up and I felt bad. But it didn’t matter, nothing was lost in translation. In that small motion it became clear that Japanese trains didn’t need music and mess and colour to be alive and filled with soul.

Japan specialists, InsideJapan Tours, offer tailored travel by rail across the country. A rail pass for two weeks costs £242. www.InsideJapanTours.com 0117 244 3263

The World’s First Robot Hotel, Huis Ten Bosch, Japan

Yesterday I stayed at the Henn Na Hotel in Huis Ten Bosch in Japan, otherwise widely known now as the world’s first robot hotel and here’s what happened…

At 2.55pm everyone’s asleep. Behind reception a motionless girl is wearing a cream jacket and a smirk, her hair folded into a chignon. To her left is a velociraptor sporting a bow tie and a bellhop’s hat at a jaunty angle. With the exception of a foot-high robot that orders taxis, there is no one else around. The girl has a sign saying “only Japanese”, so I approach the velociraptor and say hello. Nothing. I wave and he stares past, his limp wrists poised.

“I’d like to check in please,” I shout, wondering if the robots are voice-activated. A door opens to the right and a man in a black T-shirt appears. “Check-in is 3pm” he says and goes back into the room. And with that the magic has gone.

Since Japan’s now infamous robot hotel opened on 16th July, reports of dinosaurs, chattering bedside buddies and robotic porters have flooded the internet, most based on little more than press releases and PR-driven tours pushing a disingenuous line. This is not the hotel’s fault but a result of overzealous misreporting. Henn Na, which is part of the Huis Ten Bosch amusement park in Nagasaki prefecture – a Dutch Disneyland built to resemble the Netherlands – is used largely by Japanese families visiting the park with very young children and is no more than an extension of the magical kingdom, a 1hr 45-minute train journey from both Hakata and Nagasaki.

At 3pm the velociraptor jerks to life, and in an American accent says “Welcome to the Henn Na hotel. If you want to check in, press one.” Excited that everything is now up and running I start tapping my name on a screen when the man in black appears again and asks for my passport, while the dinosaur falls into a state of inertia. It feels like Keith Harris has just taken his hand out of Orville and slapped me with it.

Dejected by the human involvement and that there’s no robot to transport my luggage – this service is only available for residents staying in the A wing and is provided by two chargeable trolleys that stay plugged in for most of the day – I went to my room.

But I wasn’t alone.

On the bedside table sat Chu-ri-chan a cute little creature with a tulip-shaped head. Much like an in-room concierge or a Teddy Ruxspin in a pink dress, Chu-ri-chan switches on the lights, offers weather forecasts and provides a wake-up call. She’ll also perk up after being silent for an hour and scare the crap out of you. However, she doesn’t speak English yet. And there’s no reason why she should – this is a Japanese hotel after all.

The hotel itself is a beautifully designed modernist property with thoughtful additions such as an air-conditioning system that adjusts after detecting body temperatures, facial-recognition to avoid misplaced room keycards, and vending machines with games for children. It also offers breakfast at Aura, an organic restaurant that grows its own produce and serves the best scrambled eggs in Japan. But curious tourists who come to Henn Na expecting to be served green tea by Johnny Five and his crew will, I fear, leave underwhelmed.